On July 1, 2021, the NCAA approved states to decide on passing laws that allow college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) for the first time ever. In the whirlwind that followed, support groups called collectives popped up all over the country to help student-athletes with their NIL opportunities and help programs retain players in a space dominated by the transfer portal.
Now, the Missouri Valley Conference has its first collective, and it’s right here at Bradley.
“I think for the broader Bradley community, it was put together to kind of ensure that the basketball program continues to be competitive and win,” co-founder Ryan Pierson said. “When that happens, Bradley benefits [and] the Peoria area benefits.”
Pierson, Matt Wiesner, Joe Messmore, Steve Ciccarelli and Rick Gaa are the founders of Home of the Brave, a member-driven NIL collective dedicated to helping the Bradley men’s basketball program and its players. Growing up in Peoria and having a goal to keep players in the city, Pierson and the others wanted to help their home team in any way they could.
“We’ve all seen what the community is like when Bradley is winning,” Pierson said. “Nothing in my lifetime has brought Peoria as much national notoriety as when Bradley basketball is winning on a national level. We’ve all had a taste of that, and we want to do everything we can to try and get us back to that.”
So what is an NIL collective?
In essence, it’s a group founded by alumni and team supporters that is funded by donors to create NIL opportunities for student-athletes through a variety of activities. In Home of the Brave’s case, those activities include community events, group outings and the coveted local business deal.
“Some of the players have contacted us almost on their own,” Wiesner said. “They’re not really reaching out to us on every single individual one.”
Indeed, players do not have to go through Home of the Brave for all of their NIL deals. With the founders and the 50 members’ ties to local businesses, their main role is making the connection between the establishments and the players. They’re matchmakers, not agents.
“We’re hoping that it goes hand-in-hand with team success,” Pierson said. “When Bradley is winning, local businesses will see benefits in having our student athletes represent their brand.”
In addition, the collective pays the players to come out to their events and gives every player at least a minimum dollar amount in NIL payments. With money flowing into the pockets of young adults, Home of the Brave also provides financing and networking help so that athletes will be set up beyond college. It’s a daunting task to keep up with, but Wiesner has his goals in mind.
“[We want to] grow the collective, grow the amount of money that we’re pouring in so we can continue to keep the players that we have here for four years, [as well as] trying to help our coaches with their recruiting [so they can] try to get the best players we can,” Wiesner said.
Discussions around a collective like Home of the Brave started in January of this year. Once the basketball season ended in March, the vision picked up steam as Pierson and the other founders knew they wanted to contribute in this unexplored area of college athletics. Then, on June 1, Home of the Brave was officially unveiled to the world.
Not affiliated with Bradley or the athletic department, Home of the Brave is one of only three NIL collectives centered around men’s basketball (the other two being Gonzaga and Wichita State). Every non-international player signed a contract with Home of the Brave during a signing event on Aug. 21, while the international players such as Ville Tahvanainen and Rienk Mast, who are in the U.S. on work visas, did ceremonial signings of Home of the Brave merchandise. NCAA rules prevent athletes who are in the U.S. on visas from profiting from off-campus work-related ventures.
A day later, the collective hosted a golf outing, the first opportunity for the athletes to get paid. Former Braves players Marcellus Sommerville, Patrick O’Bryant, Andrew Warren and Bob Humbles were just a few famous names among a sold out field of Peoria area community members.
“Having people like Patrick O’Bryant, Andrew Warren [and] some of the popular people that some other alumni know [and] other supporters of Bradley know, it just helps us make more of a name for ourselves [and] helps people take us more serious,” Wiesner said.
Home of the Brave will undoubtedly host more events, so golf isn’t the only thing people should look out for.
“We’re planning on having a couple other events that the public could be involved in,” Wiesner said. “Possibly a bowling outing, [but] we’re not 100% set in stone on that.”
Despite all this excitement, Pierson admits that it’s still early in the process and the perks, especially for the Bradley community, are not clearly outlined.
“We have to crawl before we can walk [and] walk before we can run,” Pierson said. “As it starts to grow, you’ll start to see more benefits.”
Eventually, supporters will be able to purchase merchandise to benefit Home of the Brave and the opportunity to become a member will arise again. For students, Pierson even hints at a tier system that’s popular with other collectives across the country.
“Obviously, students are working on a different budget than those of us that have been out of school for a while,” Pierson said. “As we grow [and] the team continues to be successful, we expand in ways so that other people can get involved beyond just the membership model that we have right now.”
All in all, it seems to be an exciting time to be a Bradley basketball fan, something Pierson and Wiesner know a lot about.
“This is something that we grew up with,” Pierson said. “It wasn’t just because Matt and I went to college here. It’s in our blood.”